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Don Whelan, CBS Music Director, celebrates 50 years of service

On Sunday 6th October a major milestone was celebrated: Don Whelan’s fifty years of service as Musical Director at our Cathedral. Fr John Adams offered the 10.30am choral Mass at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral before around 100 past and present members of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Choir and Orchestra (CBS). Following Mass CBS adjourned to Rydges Latimer Christchurch Hotel for a banquet lunch, speeches and high quality music.

Click here to view video messages presented on the occasion.

Click here to view slide show photos

The choral Mass included giving thanks to God for the work of Don for his service as Musical Director for fifty years. The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament Choir and Orchestra (CBS) was joined in the choir gallery by former singers and others who swelled the congregational singing below. The first Sunday of every month offers an orchestral setting of the Mass, and on Sunday Mozart’s Piccolomini Mass provided the musical centre-piece along with congregational hymns and liturgical music.

Fr John Adams celebrated Mass and was joined by Bishop Basil Meeking and Fr Edwin Colaco. Fr Adams recalled an incident that occurred at the Sydney World Youth Day in 2008. “The New Zealand Catholic Bishops decided to host a special event just for New Zealanders. The bishops hired a big pavilion and in that space, were a crowd of over four thousand young New Zealand Catholics. Cardinal John Dew addressed the large and excited crowd. His first sentence went something like this: “The bishops of New Zealand are here to serve you. Tell us what you want.” And then, after a micro-second of silence, after Cardinal John had issued his invitation, a lone, but loud and clear voice came from the midst of the crowd and a young man cried out: “Fix the liturgy!” I wonder what he meant.”

“Catholic tradition has always understood that the liturgy is participating in the eternal “now” of God. That it is in the liturgy that we come face to face with the mysteries of Jesus Christ who is the Eternal High Priest, who is living and active in the Church right now. So the liturgy is always in the present moment.”

“This morning I want to suggest to you that it is in the liturgy of the Church, that a malnourished world will find the food it is longing for. Jesus himself, “Doctor and medicine” as St Thomas Aquinas terms it, is the only answer to the hunger each one of us experiences.”

“Fix the liturgy” that young man asked of our bishops. You know, I think I know who that young man was. In fact, he is currently in my parish of North Canterbury. Next time I see him, I must remind him of a golden opportunity which has been available for many years now in the Mother Church of this diocese of Christchurch. Yes, here at this 10.30am Choral Mass, I believe there is the chance to experience, with the great help of the musical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, the opportunity to encounter the living Christ in the eternal “now” of the liturgy.”

“I want to conclude by acknowledging the person who has kept that great treasury of Catholic music alive as it has been in this diocese for fifty years. Good musicians are rare enough, but to find a person who possesses not only the necessary musicianship, lively faith, and drive to sustain the musical programme of such great breadth is rare indeed. Thank you, Don, for all you have brought to our Cathedral and our Pro-Cathedral for so long now, for fifty years. We salute you this morning and give thanks for the remarkably generous way you have served the people of God with your gifts in our Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and here in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral.”

Following Mass, just over 100 of the CBS musical community converged on Ridges Hotel for a formal celebration including speeches supplemented by high quality musical performances, a photo presentation and a number of short video clips from the CBS diaspora.

Ken Joblin (Diocesn Music Advisor and CBS Bass Section Leader) gave the keynote address. He concluded: “Don has been honoured for his work by the Vatican and the Royal School of Church Music. In being here with you today Don, we do likewise. In your work, the lives of many in New Zealand and beyond our shores have been touched at a profound level. It is unlikely that we will again see a fifty year commitment to sacred music on the scale you have achieved. We are forever grateful to you, Beris and your family for allowing us to be part of the CBS movement and of your lives. We know that through the music made under your direction, our voices join those of the angels and saints and that as our sound leaves the church on earth, it is heard in our heavenly home.” The music of heaven was then sung by the whole assembly in Bruckner’s four-part motet “Locus Iste”.

The Diocese was pleased to support this reception for Don. Diocesan General Manager Andy Doherty stated “We are very fortunate to have someone of Don’s skill and passion in our Diocese. I liken him to our early exporters, travelling the world telling our unique story. CBS Music is internationally known, largely because of the drive and determination of Don and the team at CBS Music. You then have to back that up with a quality performance and they do this each and every time. Don sets a high standard and this is evident in the performances and then the success of those that have gone through this CBS experience. Many of those people celebrated Don’s inspiration and guidance yesterday. Well done to Don and Beris and we look forward to more successful years of CBS Music. Thanks Don!”

Below is the speech offered to Don by Ken Joblin:

In so many ways, 1969 was a momentous year for the world and even for the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch. In that year, devotees of pop culture gathered at Woodstock. The world celebrated man’s first steps on the moon. The war in Vietnam was well under way. New Zealand’s prosperity and stability under Kiwi Keith was coming to an end. As we concluded the 1960’s, in many ways and with escalating speed, the world was beginning a return to the formless void of Genesis. There was also much chaos in the Church as the decisions of the Second Vatican Council were first being interpreted and often clunkily implemented. With post-Conciliar zeal, Bishop Brian Ashby of Christchurch spearheaded these changes.

Into this context of chaos and opportunity came young Catholic Christchurch teacher, Don Whelan. Don really came to music while at teachers College in Dunedin where he began to experience the beauty of sacred choral music. As a new teacher, he came to Christchurch and with his wife Beris became involved in the life of their local parish church, Christ The King, Burnside. He began working with Dutch immigrant singers there, who knew the art of singing in parts as they came from a choral culture. A product of the Catholic Youth Movement, Don helped the progressive Burnside parish to come to grips with the Second Vatican Council, becoming an organist, training and organising cantors and serving on its new parish council.

It is here that we come to 1969.

Our beautiful Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament was in need of an organist so that, just before Easter of that year, Don took up this role. In their infinite wisdom, the Cathedral authorities made it very clear to Don that he was to be an organist, simply playing hymns for the new vernacular Mass. The unsophisticated understanding of full, conscious and active participation being rigorously applied in the wake of the Second Vatican Council meant the laity must do everything. Choirs were seen as an elitist activity, robbing the people of what now rightly belonged to them. Even Martin Luther didn’t go that far. But a week before his arrival, the clergy took the trouble of throwing out the choir’s existing library, making Don’s establishment of a choir a more remote possibility.

Don rightly saw that a beautiful cathedral would be all the more so with the Church’s sacred music resounding from within its walls. So began a choral counter-reformation. While many became dedicated followers of fashion and began an odyssey which blurred the distinction between sacred and secular music, the timeless beauty of our sacred music was being heard in New Zealand’s finest Catholic cathedral.
As Don was opening the doors of the Church’s treasury of Sacred music and seeing the beauty to be found within, he began sharing this beauty with the parishioners of and visitors to our Cathedral. A Cathedral Choir and Orchestra began to take shape and our Cathedral became a place for the musical community of Christchurch to enjoy timeless beauty with us in architect Francis Petre’s fine acoustic. Don and the Cathedral soon became synonymous.

At the same time, Don and Beris’s young family was taking shape and musical talent was being fostered there as well. We know that for many years, family activity has had to fit around the Church’s liturgical calendar, that Don’s musical vocation has made many demands on family life and that in Beris, Don has by-and-large been able to maintain an equilibrium which his drive and vision might not have otherwise allowed. Many people have benefitted from this family sacrifice which may not have been acknowledged as often as it ought. In the late 1970’s, the family moved for two years to the UK to allow Don to deepen his own formation in sacred music. Perhaps too, this offered the family opportunities to counter-balance the sacrifices required by a “maniacal genius”.

The 1980’s saw our Cathedral Choir and Orchestra, (CBS) develop into quite a musical force with some Australasian touring along with a developing Sunday repertoire. A stylistic pattern was well established with a four-week cycle: week 1 Orchestral, week 2 contemporary choral, week 3 polyphonic and week 4 Plainsong. This often ambitious liturgical programme has been the envy of church directors of music around the world and compares very well with the finest European cathedral traditions. It meant that our choir and orchestra came to love the breadth of the Church’s finest sacred music. Don was opening us up to possibilities beyond us. Even Stravinsky: “Kyrie eleison.” Choral set pieces of the Bach St John Passion on Good Friday and Handel’s Messiah in December were also supplemented by a cycle of Haydn Masses which were too long for liturgical performance. Holy Week and Easter became a time of intense choral activity and liturgical beauty with Liszt’s Via Crucis on Good Friday and Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Handel’s Worthy is the Lamb featuring each year on Easter Day. And of course, do not think of leaving town until after Midnight Mass.

At that time, CBS was really Christchurch’s youth choir with a number of highly talented singers and musicians cutting their teeth in the CBS stable. Many singers were given opportunities to perform with an orchestra which they might not have otherwise had. CBS was becoming a family with the choir and orchestra making musical contributions at weddings and funerals. CBS was also becoming a movement: finding fervent Catholics like myself happily singing with Christians of other traditions and yet others of no fixed spiritual abode but who were attracted to and transformed by beauty.
Some entered the CBS movement as their way of entering full communion in the Catholic Church. Some sang in this movement as their way of staying within the Catholic Church. What other movement in this Diocese or beyond brings people together from such a range of backgrounds and experience, with such a high level of talent, whose collective effort is placed in the service of God, our ultimate end.

The history of the CBS movement really became intertwined with that of the diocese with CBS involvement at key moments in diocesan life. There are many of these, including five episcopal ordinations, but perhaps the most notable was Pope St John Paul II’s visit to Christchurch and to our cathedral in November 1986.

A curious event took place in the 1980’s when the visiting Australian rock band, Midnight Oil, ran into the Wizard in Cathedral Square. They told him they lacked a suitable support act to front their concerts in the Theatre Royal. The Wizard readily suggested the CBS Choir. The Oils were keen and the invitation was promptly passed to Don who accepted with alacrity and at very short notice. Thus it came to pass that “A Sound Came From Heaven” and other choir standards floated over the stunned patrons. On the first night the reaction from below was “What’s this (faecal matter) man?” but after lead singer, and later Senator Peter Garrett explained that the choir was there at his special invitation, the response warmed up considerably. A truly unique occasion and one reflecting a choral director who, while upholding convention, often thinks outside of it.

We know that Don is indefatigable and has the ability to exhaust people somewhat younger than himself. He is an inveterate traveller, a magnificent tour organiser and a generous guide. As a consequence, many singers, musicians and supporters have toured Europe, Asia the Americas, the UK and Ireland and Australia as well as annual weekends around New Zealand. Tours have created a wonderfully social choir with lifelong friendships, some marriages and lasting memories.

It is impossible to list all the highlights from the many tours within the confines of this speech, but just a few are: the first concerts of the year in Venice (on two separate tours, including the first concert of this Millennium), Gabrielli in San Marco, Masses in Notre Dame, Il Duomo (Milan) and of course the very beautiful and acoustically magnificent Westminster Cathedral. Performances of Messiah took place in Cairo, Jerusalem and Istanbul, where people freely came and went and came back and stayed. CBS was singing in Europe soon after the Berlin Wall came down. On Christmas Day 1994, CBS performed the first orchestral Mass in St Vitus’ Cathedral Prague since the Russian takeover in 1968. CBS sang at Midnight Mass in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome in 1999. This Mass was perhaps notable for a seminarian, (since ordained), who was ejected from St Peter’s by the Swiss Guard as he approached the altar for Communion in a cue reserved for diplomats.

Other highlights: scaling the heights of Macchu Pichu; the splendour of the Iguazu Falls, the sights of Warsaw, Vienna, St Petersburg, Moscow, Gallipolli etc. Perhaps one of the lasting and most treasured travel memories will be from the last international tour to the UK and Ireland. As we gently travelled around the emerald isle, Don treated the tour group to renditions of the wonderful Irish poet WB Yeats, whose grave we visited. Often I would pop my recorder on for these tour bus performances.

Touring also creates unexpected experiences such as trundling timpani over the cobbles of old city streets and the need to find an electrician on New Year’s Day in Venice after having blown all the fuses in the church.

With the after-effects of the Canterbury earthquakes dominating life in Christchurch in the last decade, Don provided much needed stability and hope through the Church’s sacred music. We sang Mass in the Samoan hall next to our Cathedral on the day after the September 4th earthquake with Haydn’s Little Organ Mass and the words of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind: inviting the Lord to “Breathe through the earthquake, wind, and fire, o still, small voice of calm.” I think the culmination of our experience of that earthquake could be heard in the final amens of Handel’s Messiah in St Mary’s in December 2010. How can we forget singing at FaithFest on the Feast of Christ the King in 2013 when Bishop Barry Jones brought the diocese together for Mass and a day of Catholic celebration at the Westpac Arena. The liturgical and concert programmes have continued in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. Wednesdays at 1.00 is a great artistic and evangelical outreach from our Pro-Cathedral to the inner-city community. Through Don’s work, the musical community of Christchurch is regularly brought together. The annual Christchurch Choral Festival is a key example of this where all our choirs are encouraged to get out from their silos and join together through the gift of singing.

As we know well, with Don, there are never problems, only solutions and obstacles which would defeat many are carefully, tenaciously and single-mindedly overcome. I have witnessed “the bulldozer and the nat” scenario on many occasions. I think with the skill of Don Whelan, Borris Johnson would indeed “get Brexit done”, with a favourable deal, no Irish Backstop and with the EU shaking his hand while wondering what had just hit them.

Don has been honoured for his work by the Vatican and the Royal School of Church Music. In being here with you today Don, we do likewise. In your work, the lives of many in New Zealand and beyond our shores have been touched at a profound level. It is unlikely that we will again see a fifty year commitment to sacred music on the scale you have achieved. We are forever grateful to you, Beris and your family for allowing us to be part of the CBS movement and of your lives. We know that through the music made under your direction, our voices join those of the angels and saints and that as our sound leaves the church on earth, it is heard in our heavenly home.

Click here to view video messages presented on the occasion.

Click here to view slide show photos